by John Samuel
Zuby Onwuta is the inventor of “Think and Zoom: Brain control for Blind Assistive Tech”, and Founder of Think and Zoom, a solution that reads and responds to human brain waves, to provide vision augmentation and reading assistance.
How did you get started in your career?
I wanted to be a medical doctor. I came to America, from Nigeria, with three things: a duffel bag, $200, and my dream in my front pocket, and quickly realized I needed three very significant zeros to the back of my $200 to move this dream forward. I joined the US Army to serve the country, giving me the great opportunity of coming to learn here. I was a premier student; I was in the US Army. And within two years, I went from seeing the eye chart from 20 feet away to seeing the eye chart from one foot away. It was a very traumatic experience. The decline was so swift, so sharp, there was no time for preparation. The military discharged me, along with my dream of becoming a medical doctor. I battled with depression for some time, but I eventually picked myself up and I shifted focus and went into computer engineering.
I didn’t understand what computer engineering was when I first started down this road, but it was a challenge for me. One part of it was there’s hardware. So you have to mess with the electrical circuits. Then there’s software, where you have to write hundreds of thousands of lines of code. That was a lot of intense work for anyone, especially somebody who didn’t see very well, but I endured, I even flunked out halfway through, but I kept enduring and eventually graduated and then landed at IBM. I joined the organization through a disability employment program they offered, and I started with managing a lab with 300 servers. I later on became the global lead for all of the unique server file systems, and some of my clients included the White House, Bloomberg, and Boeing.
What are you doing at Zoom and Think?
Zoom is creating a world where a visual impairment or disability no longer steals dreams, or kills careers. That’s the very heavy statement. And we aim to empower the visually impaired, to be able to look, think, and zoom to their better, brighter future. And so when you think about a world, a world is made up of very many different things, and that’s how we look at the problem. We don’t look at it as here’s one assistive tech solution. No, we try to look at the story of the human that is visually impaired, and we try to understand all aspects of their lives. And then we try to bring about the solution that will achieve these three themes that we’ll always have: user experience, improved functionality, and ultimately boost their productivity. We are doing this through our brain control solution, which simply uses a sensor on your forehead, so you can think and magnify content on your computer screen.
What is “brain control”?
Brain control is simply the ability of humans to use the naturally occurring brainwaves to control electronic devices. One way to look at it is if you press a button on the TV remote, something happens on the TV. Well, there’s electrical circuitry inside of the remote control.
Now to bring it back to humans, inside of our brains at the root of our thoughts, emotions, and behavior, there are a massive amount of neurons that enable all of that to work, and they communicate with each other through electrical impulses. Through the science and technology of EEG, or electroencephalography, we are able to tap these electrical impulses as waves called brainwaves. We can either tap it invasively by inserting electrodes into the brain, or by EEG, which allows us to also tap those brainwaves (noninvasively) by simply placing electrodes on the forehead or the scalp area.
What led you down this path?
I was looking for a solution for myself. I use magnifiers and it’s really very frustrating for me to use two hands, just to be able to magnify. And I also use screen readers and anybody that knows what a screener is, there are so many shortcut keys. And for those who don’t know what a screen reader is, courier is simply a software that enables somebody who does not see well to turn all text characters into audio so they can listen to it instead. But for you to be able to control all of that stuff, you need two hands and two fingers to be able to punch all the cues, just to send commands like new page, next word, next paragraph. So it was very frustrating. And so for many years, I kept looking for a way to make this experience just simpler, which should be able to provide a greater user experience.